ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- Jill Biden embarked Wednesday on her first solo international trip as first lady, leading a U.S. delegation to the Olympic Games in Tokyo, where the coronavirus is surging and COVID-19 infections have climbed to a six-month high.
On her way she stopped in Alaska, where she praised efforts to vaccinate residents in the rugged, remote state but noted the work is not done. Alaska, like other parts of the country, is seeing case counts rise, and health officials have expressed concern with flattening vaccination rates.
“Even as we celebrate the progress we've made, we know that this last push is really the hardest of all,” Jill Biden said while visiting the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium in Anchorage. Getting more people vaccinated will mean making the case “person by person," she said.
The first lady was joined by the state's chief medical officer, Dr. Anne Zink, and the health consortium's leader, Valerie Davidson. The tribal health system has been credited with helping Alaska get off to a strong start with its vaccine rollout, with tribal health organizations sharing vaccines with the broader community and being able to decide how best to distribute their allocations.
Davidson said that with cooperation among the tribal health system and state and federal governments, “we were able to ensure that some of our last language bearers and our last culture bearers were able to be among the first people vaccinated, regardless of their age.”
In a state where many communities are not connected to a main road system, vaccine was delivered in some cases by means including small planes, boats and sled dogs. The vaccine was even transported out to a whaling boat in 8-foot (2.4-meter) seas, Jill Biden was told.
About 52% of Alaska residents 12 or older are fully vaccinated, according to the state health department.
Zink, who has been one of the public faces of Alaska's COVID-19 response, lauded Jill Biden's visit. “We get excited when Alaska's actually on a map. We're even more excited when people come and visit our big and beautiful and absolutely wonderous state," she said.
Davidson, who is Yup'ik, gave Biden the name Taurluq, which Jill Biden said was the name of Davidson's grandmother. “I hope I can try and live up to the woman your grandmother was,” Jill Biden said.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday that President Joe Biden and the first lady both felt it was important that the delegation to the Olympic Games be led “at the highest level,” and that Jill Biden looked forward to the journey to help support U.S. athletes, who will be competing in some of the starkest conditions for an Olympic Games.
She has a robust agenda for roughly 48 hours on the ground in Japan's capital.
The first lady is set to arrive at Yokota Air Force Base in Tokyo on Thursday afternoon and have dinner with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and his wife, Mariko Suga, at Akasaka Palace.
She is to return to the palace Friday and be hosted by Mariko Suga. Jill Biden will hold a virtual get-together with members of Team USA before meeting Emperor Naruhito at the Imperial Palace. She attends the opening ceremony for the Games in the evening and is expected to lead a slimmed-down delegation of two that also includes Raymond Greene, who is overseeing affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo in the absence of an ambassador.
On Saturday, the first lady will dedicate a room in the residence of the U.S. chief of mission to former U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, and his wife, Irene Hirano Inouye. The senator died in 2012, and his wife died last year.
Jill Biden also will host a U.S.-vs.-Mexico softball watch party at the U.S. Embassy for staff and their families, and cheer U.S. athletes competing in several events before leaving Tokyo.
The trip opened Wednesday at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage, where the first lady arrived around 1 p.m. local time. Waiting on the tarmac to greet her were officials from the base and staff and guests at the Alaska Fisher House, where military and veteran families can stay free of charge when a loved one is hospitalized.
Theresa Nedrow, manager of the Alaska Fisher House, called the chance to meet with Jill Biden “remarkable.”
“It was an opportunity of a lifetime,” she said.
On Jill Biden's way back from Tokyo, she is set to tour a Honolulu vaccination clinic before returning to Washington.
Tokyo’s COVID-19 infections surged to a six-month high Wednesday with 1,832 new cases logged just two days before the Games open.
The Olympic host city is now under its fourth state of emergency, which runs through Aug. 22, spanning the duration of the Olympic Games that open Friday and end Aug. 8. Fans are banned from all venues in the Tokyo area, with limited audiences at a few outlying sites.
Suga's government has been criticized for what some say is prioritizing Olympic sport over public health, and there has been little fanfare in the run-up to the Games, which were postponed from last year because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Imperial Palace said last month that Naruhito is “extremely worried” that the Games could accelerate the spread of the coronavirus.
Jill Biden is fully vaccinated. Psaki, the White House press secretary, said the U.S. delegation will follow “very strict” health and safety protocols during the trip, including limiting their engagement with the public and keeping as small a footprint as possible.
President Joe Biden is not attending the Games.
Superville reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Becky Bohrer contributed to this report from Juneau, Alaska.